"One man can make a difference."
How a 1980s television series inspired Dr. Paul to bring this slogan to life.
In January 2004, Paul Stuart Wichansky wrote the following thank-you note to actor David Hasselhoff. David generously responded to Paul's letter, asking him if he can include the full letter at the end of his memoirs, in his words, "as an inspiration to others." David's autobiography, originally titled Making Waves, has been published in several languages around the world under a unique new title, Don't Hassel The Hoff. Paul's letter appears on pages 273-278 of the United States version.
The following excerpt of Paul's letter is a very powerful and evocative nod to the 1980s Knight Rider slogan, "One man can make a difference." Our readers were apparently inspired!
Dear Mr. Hasselhoff,
It is with pleasure that I am writing to you! Happy New Year! It was twenty-two years ago when you first inspired me with your television character, Michael Knight. The theme of Knight Rider,where "one man can make a difference," is a theme I have consistently applied to my own life. After I watched the first few episodes of your television show in 1982, I became inspired to continue visiting schools to talk about the positive perspectives and realities of growing up with my cerebral palsy.
You see, for the next two decades, I never lost the passion for educating young students to become the best they can possibly be, and to share their talents with others. Though Michael Knight was a fictional person who never asked me to believe in him, he was the first television character who taught me to believe in myself and try to always come out a winner.
Since I was ten years old in 1981, I have enjoyed visiting elementary, middle, and high schools to discuss the importance of disability awareness and character education. By sharing personal experiences with humor, and encouraging students to ask questions that would help positively shape their understanding of people with disabilities, I try to instill the hope, energy, and inspiration that motivates them to realize their own goals and dreams.
There is no better feeling in the world than to make students smile and feel good about themselves, so the future for all of us would then look so much brighter!
Since I was unable to walk unassisted for the first seven years of my life, you might be asking - what is my special dream? Simply being able to walk like everyone else. When I was a goalie in a soccer game at 10 years old, which was the first time I was able to stand for two hours on my own two feet, and my heart surged with such pride and enthusiasm for reaching that simple goal!
So with intense physical and occupational therapy over the years, my leg muscles have eventually gotten stronger to the point where I am now able to walk over three miles on the treadmill every other day! Presently, I am pursuing my academic dream too, since I am a meteorologist and Ph.D candidate at Rutgers University. (Meteorology is the only career where you can be wrong and still keep your job!)
Despite earning two degrees in meteorology and pursuing a third one, my career goal is to continue challenging students to learn more about the world around them, enabling them to discover and share with others their own gifts and talents!
An experience that helped shape my own personality was a discovery that you must be your own best friend before you can discover and truly accept the meaning of having a disability.
This occurred when I was fifteen years old, during a class trip to visit the beautiful St. Joseph's Cathedral in Montreal, Canada, in 1986. The leg braces and crutches covering the walls and the entire ceiling of that cathedral were left there by thousands of people who believed that their visit to the shrine cured them of their challenges. So I took my leg braces off, left them on the floor, and was able to walk down the church steps with Saint Joseph guiding me. My mom took my braces home with her, and I still needed to wear them for another year.
But, on the very same date one year later, my orthopedist (see photo) finally decided to allow me to walk without my leg braces, and I have not needed them since. For the first time in my life, I understood that the question, "Why me?" was an unusually selfish attitude; you should be asking, "Why not me?"
In other words, your challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they are supposed to help you discover that all life is yours - to conquer, to love, to live.
My friend, Tom Malloy, is an actor who has actually inspired me to write to you! (Tom provided me with your address.) In October, I spoke to students at a school in southern Virginia, and Tom and I took a seven-hour roadtrip from New Jersey to get to the school. During this time, we talked about television shows that have inspired both of us when we were kids, and Knight Rider was one of them. I discovered, to my amazement, that Tom took his grandmother out for dinner every New Year's Eve, which was exactly what I used to do every year when my own grandmother was alive.
And even if she passed away three years ago, she is still living inside me. For when you are reading this very letter, Mr. Hasselhoff, you are not merely reading what I am writing. My grandmother is also talking to you as I type this, because she will always be a part of me. Isn't the heart a beautiful pen with which to write memories? It's an experience I pass along to students in my discussion of the importance of role models in life.
With the mention of Knight Rider , I cannot forget the impact that the prototype car, KITT, had on me! For eight years, I just did not realize that I had my own KITT but it wasn't a Pontiac at all!
My aim was to make other drivers smile on the highways, so I transformed my white Mercury Topaz into a M-series BMW 330Ci. I removed all of the round Mercury emblems and replaced them with BMW hood emblems, on the grille and wheels! I even looked on eBay and purchased the chrome 330Ci logo and a M-series badge (to cover up the holes on the trunk lid!). It was an amazing transformation that looked very much factory-like, and the car was in excellent cosmetic and mechanical condition.
While I was driving to one of my school programs early one morning last year, a driver cut me off so closely that it forced me off the highway and into a guardrail at 50 mph. Fortunately, I was not hurt, and the car - though totaled - was still running! So I turned the car around when the traffic was clear, and drove a quarter-mile until the shoulder opened up, pulled onto the grass, and called the state police. As they took the report for the single-car accident, I was not worried about the car at all - I simply wanted to get to the school because I wanted to make the third-graders smile. I just didn't want to let the students down if I had to cancel the program. The state police gave me permission to continue driving slowly to the school, though the car had virtually no front-end on it! I got to the school that morning and gave the programs, but I got to tell you that these were among the most emotionally-difficult programs that I have ever done.
This experience made me realize that life itself is a fantastic dream. There are good times and bad times as you go through life. The good times are when the sun rises in the east, and when it's high in the sky, you feel good about yourself, and everything is going your way: you're happy, you're content, you are getting good grades at school. But there comes other times when the sun sets, and you go through a period of nightfall - that's anger, frustration, depression coming to the forefront. But you cannot lose sight of the future - the sun must rise again, it has to, so good times are ahead.
I am thus living a fantastic dream, having new experiences each day that help me re-evaluate myself and my purpose in life. And the good thing from this accident was the fact that I took care of that pseudo-BMW for eight years - but that morning the car finally took care of me: I wasn't hurt. So, in a way, my car has also been a KITT to me.
It is my dream to own, and take care of, a KITT replica. As I am continuing to pay for my education through the assemblies I host at schools, my dream of owning one would need to wait. That's okay with me - we are not given dreams without also being given the power to make them come true!
Mr. Hasselhoff, it is also my dream to meet you one day and personally thank you for motivating me to succeed in my personal and academic life. Perhaps on your next visit to New Jersey or the New York City area, and if your schedule permits, you are certainly welcome to attend and audit one of my disability awareness programs. If you know teachers in southern California who may be interested in my programs, please do not hesitate to let them know that I am eager to visit California since my first and only vacation there during the summer of 1979! (At that time, I recall seeing a huge sign for Bakersfield on the highway, and since my mom was driving, I was actually pleading with her to stop by the California Highway Patrol office so that I can meet Jon and Ponch of CHiPs! That television show was then very real to an 8-year-old boy!)
You can see that I truly enjoy positively shaping the lives of others so that they can become proud of themselves. I do hope that you support my passion for educating others about disabilities and how a positive attitude can affect anyone in their lives.
Though my family and friends cannot appreciate a television show like Knight Rider in the same way that I do, I believe that it inspired me to take the overall theme to heart and harness its power in a way that few people can understand, or even identify with. I now look back and realize the four years of your show may have been the most critical in helping me to develop an appreciation that my own physical challenges might be among the greatest gifts that I have received. My parents and family certainly helped a great deal and deserve special thanks, yes, but I needed some sort of personal revelation that could only come outside of the family. Your show, along with others like the Dukes of Hazzard and CHiPs, made me understand that each of us can also be heroes - in other words, ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances - like our favorite television characters did each week.
I then began to understand that I have the power to share this positive perspective with others to effectively shatter negative stereotypes, because from what I have seen, it's a negative attitude that can very well become a disability. However, if you have learned to embrace a positive attitude and enjoy interacting with others, you have the power to dream about your future and also build upon that dream.
Best wishes for a successful and productive new year!